Comes the end of the year, the last First Monday of the year. With the world ending on Dec. 21 and all, my selection for this month seems entirely appropriate: Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
This 2006 best-seller by the science writer and Atlantic Monthly contributor was a huge, popular revelation when it was released. It brought to a mass audience a major revision of our understanding of Native Americans' impact on the environment, the depth and richness of Native cultures, and the utter (and largely unintended) devastation wrought on Native populations by Western diseases.
Mann compellingly musters the academic evidence to argue that Native populations were huge prior to the arrival of Westerners, that those populations had highly sophisticated economies, polities and cultures in many cases, and that many Native cultures had dramatic impacts on the landscape, from sculpting and expanding the Great Plains, to building magnificent pyramids, to cultivating a complex ecosystem in the Amazon, to crafting a sophisticated trading culture in the Andes.
Perhaps most importantly, Mann offers us lay readers a new understanding of the relationship between the Indians and the early settlers in North America. As the New York Times review of the book put it,
According to some estimates, as much as 95 percent of the Indians may have died almost immediately on contact with various European diseases, particularly smallpox. That would have amounted to about one-fifth of the world's total population at the time, a level of destruction unequaled before or since. The exact numbers, like everything else, are in dispute, but it is clear that these plagues wreaked havoc on traditional Indian societies. European misreadings of America should not be attributed wholly to ethnic arrogance. The "savages" most of the colonists saw, without ever realizing it, were usually the traumatized, destitute survivors of ancient and intricate civilizations that had collapsed almost overnight. Even the superabundant "nature" the Europeans inherited had been largely put in place by these now absent gardeners, and had run wild only after they had ceased to cull and harvest it.
These are important cultural adjustments that will probably take another generation or more to fully be accepted by our national psyche. This is no guilt-ridden, lefty apologia, but rather an honest attempt to help us make better sense of our real past in this hemisphere. The book is fairly well-written, if non-linear in its presentation. It won't keep you up at night with riveting story-telling, but it has a lot to teach, and a lot to ponder. I would have appreciated Mann taking Jared Diamond's work more seriously (there are only two, brief mentions of Diamond's work in the book, even though much of the story he tells fits closely with Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel explanations for European conquest of the New World), and eminent historian Alan Taylor delivered some trenchant criticisms in his WaPo review, but I nonetheless found the book to be tremendously interesting.
Shifting gears, I return to the end-times theme. It's the end of the year, which is a time of lists. And since this a book post, my lists are about books. Duh.
Here are two biggies: Slate's best books of 2012 and the NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2012 list. Ho ho ho. I can honestly say that I have not read a single book on either of those lists (what, no A Dance With Dragons??? PrePOSterous!!!!). But I bet that in five years, I will have read a handful of them.
What are you reading, or at least buying for someone you love?